Well, it wasn’t actually a Caramel Surprise – the famous Caramel Surprise, from Sainsbury’s, which good old Rose used to bring to the monastery on a Thursday morning – but it looked mighty similar. A light coffee-brown sludge with a topping of whipped cream was visible through the side of the plastic pot. Yes – it was the spitting image. As for the most important question: did it taste the same? I don’t know, because I didn’t have one.
There were only two, you see. Not enough to go around. Nevertheless, there they were, perched next to each other on a tray, ready to be presented to Luangpor as part of the meal offering. They weren’t the only desserts: there were two chocolate versions sitting right beside them as well. But who wants chocolate when there’s caramel? Anyway, two caramel desserts there were, and the tray upon which they rested was placed into Luangpor’s hands.
He took one – naturally – and slid the tray along the floor to me, where I was confronted with one caramel dessert and the two chocolate ones. Desire for the caramel arose. I like caramel. I had eyes only for the caramel. But, exerting my will and bringing to mind the wisdom of sages past, I held back the twitching fingers of one hand and pushed along the tray with the other. Yes – I had resisted my desire for caramel so that some other fortunate being might partake of the heavenly nectar.
However, for some inexplicable reason, the person next in the line didn’t take it. I repeat: he didn’t take it. I’m not even sure he took a chocolate one. What on earth is this? I thought; and I looked on, perplexed, as it disappeared out into the kitchen, no doubt to be pounced upon by an ecstatic guest. ‘You’ve done well, Manapo,’ I reassured myself – not without a twinge of regret.
Twenty-four hours later and I’m sitting in the small shrine room – the room in which we eat – but this time I am at the head of the line. Luangpor is unwell and will be eating in his kuti. I will therefore be receiving the offerings, and putting food into his bowl as well as my own. Before the process begins, I cast my eyes across the dozen trays of food – from the white rice and baked potatoes at the front, to the soy milk and collection of condiments at the back – and what do I see in the middle, alone among the chocolate digestives? The caramel dessert.
It’s impossible, I thought. Why did no one take it? And then I paused, looked to my left, and, remembering that I was at the head of the line, realised that my time had come. I had, after all, forfeited my opportunity yesterday. Why should I not be rewarded today? The rice came and went. The baked potatoes passed. And all the while it moved nearer, until, there it was before me, in all it’s High-Density Polyethylene and tin foil-topped glory.
I put it in Luangpor’s bowl.
‘But he’ll never know!’ part of me protested. ‘And even if he did, he wouldn’t mind. He’d be happy for you!’ That’s not the point’, I replied. ‘It’ll be two seconds of pleasure followed by two days of wishing I’d given it to Luangpor. I’m giving it to him.’ There was no argument, and once the blessing had been given, Luangpor’s bowl was delivered to him in his kuti, complete with… you know what.
But, and let me be serious now, when I think back to that occasion – when I remember fighting my own greed for the sake of someone else – I feel pleased. I am glad that I did it. The few minutes of disappointment that I may have felt at being denied that little pleasure simply pale in comparison to the bright, uplifting memory that I can recall at any time.
If, on the other hand, I had followed my cravings and taken the caramel for myself, I would, as I told myself on that day, have experienced a few fleeting moments of pleasure before succumbing to remorse. Of course, we’re only talking about a pudding here, for goodness sake. It’s not as if I wanted to kill someone. But still, to have given into my greed, to have not taken that opportunity to have shared, especially when the recipient would have been unaware of the sacrifice I’d made (which is the best kind of giving), would have left me feeling weak and disappointed.
It’s kamma-vipāka – actions and their results. The law of kamma and its workings is, in many ways, exceedingly complex – so much so that the Buddha cautioned us against attempting to fully comprehend it as doing so could well send us mad. However, it does follow certain principles, and these principles we must understand.
To put it simply, when a particular action is rooted in greed, aversion and delusion, the fruit of that action will correspond to the defiled nature of that intention: in other words, it will be experienced as unpleasant. Bitter seed = bitter fruit. Conversely, if an action is rooted in the opposites, that is of non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion (or generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom) then the result will be experienced as pleasant. Sweet seed = Sweet fruit.
Of course, our lives are an intricate web of good and bad actions and their results, and so in some instances it can be difficult – perhaps impossible – to link up one with the other (and that’s not even taking into account actions that may have been performed in previous lives). Thus we can appreciate the Buddha’s warning. But, nevertheless, it’s not difficult to look back at our lives and see how certain actions have affected us.
Which brings us to memory. Because how we feel when we remember an action is a portion of its fruit. How do I feel when I remember giving away that caramel dessert? Good. How do I feel when I remember an occasion over twenty years ago when I refused to allow my little brother to have a go on my new surfboard, purely out of spite? Not so good. It some respects, it really is this simple.
And so, the next time you’re sitting down to eat with two friends and there are only two caramel desserts, you know what to do.